Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about the continuing rise of Asian universities. In The Conversation, Gerard Postiglione of the University of Hong Kong has pointed out that Asian universities now take one in eight of the top 200 places in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and he predicts that by 2040 a quarter of the top universities will be Asian.

It is interesting that he apparently regards the THE rankings as the arbiter of excellence despite an eccentric methodology that, among other oddities, claims that an excellent but small research institute is the best university in Italy and among the best in the world.

Exactly what progress in the THE rankings means is difficult to decide. A rise in the score for the research indicator, for example, could result from an increase in the number of publications, a fall in the number of academic and/or research staff, an increase in research income, an improvement in the research reputation survey or a combination of some or all of these.

Predicting what will happen in the THE rankings has become even more difficult since THE broke up with their data supplier, Thomson Reuters, raising the possibility that there will be another round of methodological changes.

There are some sceptics such as Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates but in general the rise of Asia and the decline of the US and UK seems to have become part of the accepted wisdom of Western pontificators.

So is Asia rising? And if it is, is it the whole of the continent or just parts of it?

The problem is that the rankings vary in their ability to identify medium term trends. QS and THE give a large weighting to reputation surveys that are inherently volatile,They also use an unstable number of institutions to generate means from which processed scores are calculated and this can led to fluctuations in the final overall scores

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) produced by the Shanghai Center for World-Class Universities is probably the most useful for identifying changes over the last decade since there were no significant changes between 2004 (when schools with strengths in the social sciences  were helped by exemption from the Nature and Science indicator) and 2014 (when Thomson Reuters issued a new list of highly cited researchers).

The number of universities in the Shanghai top 500 provides strong evidence that some parts of Asia are making rapid progress. The number of mainland Chinese universities (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan) has risen from 8 to 33, The number of Korean universities has gone from eight to ten, Taiwanese from three to six, Saudi from zero to four, and Malaysian from zero to two.

But some parts of Asia appear to be stagnant or in relative decline. The number of Japanese universities has fallen from 36 to 19 and Indian from three to one while the number of Hong Kong institutions has remained the same at five.

Looking at the performance of some national flagships in the ARWU publications indicator provides more evidence of an expansion of research in some Asian countries. Compared to Harvard’s benchmark score of 100, Peking University has risen from 49.8 in 2004 to 63.6 in 2014. Other Asian universities have also had substantial  growth over the decade. Seoul National University went from 62.6 to 67.8, National Taiwan University from 52.6 to 57.9 and Istanbul University from 30.7 to 34.9.

Note that the raw numbers of publications have been modified by a logarithm so that in 2004 Peking was in fact publishing about a quarter of the number of papers produced by Harvard rather than a half.

On the other hand, Tokyo University, which in 2004 had the second highest publications score in the world, fell from 91.9 to 73 and the University of Hong Kong from 46.4 to 44.

If we look at Shanghai’s Productivity per Capita indicator, which measures quality by dividing  five combined indicators by the number of faculty, we find some Asian universities doing well. Peking goes from 5.9 to 16.5, Seoul National University from 19 to 23.4 and National Taiwan University from 17.5 to 19.9. Tokyo, meanwhile, has fallen from 49.8 to 29.2. Hong Kong University, on the other hand,has risen from 13.1 to 22.4.

Confirmation of the trends for research output comes from the Output indicator in the Scimago rankings, which is based on data provided by Scopus. Peking, Seoul National University, National Taiwan University and Universiti Malaya rose between 2009 and 2014. However, the scores for Tokyo and Hong Kong both fell.

On the other hand, the evidence of Scimago’ normalised impact indicator, which might measure research quality, shows Peking rising but Seoul National University and Hong Kong falling.

It would seem that China and the overseas Chinese communities and Korea are expanding the quantity of research but progress at higher levels is slower. There are also islands of research productivity in West and Southeast Asia.  In Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and Indonesia there is very little significant research activity while Japan is actually declining.